Michigan State University's Independent Voice Since 1909, East Lansing, MI

State News Logo

Saturday, October 25, 2014

  • Facebook Logo
  • Twitter Logo
  • RSS Feed Logo
  • Email Signup Logo

MSU Football Blog

Five storylines to watch in the Rose Bowl

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/31/13 1:10am         

In the final year of the BCS format in Division I football, MSU will get its long-awaited shot in arguably the premier post-season destination outside of the national championship.

When the No. 4 Spartans take on No. 5 Stanford, champion of the Pac-12, in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, it will be the realization of a longstanding goal for head coach Mark Dantonio’s program. MSU narrowly missed BCS bowl bids in 2010 and 2011, but rebounded from a disappointing 7-6 campaign a year ago behind a resurgent offense led by first-year starting quarterback Connor Cook and a vicious defense that ranks No. 1 in the country.

As the Spartans’ dream becomes reality in Pasadena, Calif., in what is expected to be a majority MSU crowd, here are five storylines to watch:

1. Missing Max?
Since the Spartans touched down in California on Christmas night, the biggest story surrounding their team has been the shocking announcement of senior linebacker Max Bullough’s suspension.

I wrote in a column Saturday how Bullough’s absence on the field won’t be as detrimental as the distraction the situation created and the potential void in leadership presented.

I’ve been wrong before and I could be wrong again. Stanford wants to out-tough opponents offensively, much like MSU, with a power running attack behind a bulky offensive line.

How much Bullough’s ability to adapt the defense and process things on the field is missed should be evident early.

The Spartans have other leaders, and it’s incredibly hard to believe they won’t be fired up to play in this game, so I’m not sure they’ll need him too much in that regard.

But if Stanford finds a way to exploit Bullough’s absence in the running game, it’s possible MSU’s defense could be taken advantage of in a way not previously seen in 2013.

Senior Kyler Elsworth is expected to start in Bullough’s place, while sophomore Darien Harris also may see time in the middle.

2. We’re here, now what?
From the moment Dantonio was hired in 2007, the openly stated goal for his program was to return to the Rose Bowl – a venue the Spartans haven’t played in since 1988.

The previously mentioned near-misses in 2010 and 2011 left bitter tastes in the mouths of MSU players and coaches alike. Now that the Spartans finally made their return, they now have to worry about actually winning the Rose Bowl.

Since hitting the West Coast, they’ve been showered in bowl gifts and new gear, participated in a prime rib eating contest and enjoyed a comedy show as a team in addition to enjoying the sunny California weather.

For so long, MSU strived to get to this game. Now that it’s there, will the Spartans be content with participating or be prepared to win?

3. Trench warfare
It’s often said that whichever team dominates the line of scrimmage wins the game, and that adage couldn’t be more fitting for this matchup.

As previously mentioned, the Cardinal will line up with multiple tight ends and offensive linemen and look to knock the Spartans off the ball with a bruising rushing attack.

Stanford is an old-school, power offense with few frills and gimmicks averaging more than 210 yards per game on the ground.

MSU also relies on the running game to get its wheels turning and open things up for Cook in the passing game, but Stanford, No. 3 nationally in rush defense, will be the toughest challenge yet.

If either team gains a decisive advantage up front, it’s odds of winning should increase tremendously.

4. Langford’s streak
Outside of Cook, junior running back Jeremy Langford’s emergence at running back has been the surprise story on offense for the 2013 Spartans. Langford cemented himself as the starter early and grew into a potent weapon as the season wore on.

Currently, he’s riding a streak of eight 100-yard rushing games, many of which included breakaway touchdowns to ice games late in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State tried to stack the box to stymie Langford in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Stanford is likely to do the same.

If Langford can keep the 100-yard streak alive, and possibly even deliver another late-game dagger, it’ll be one of the keys for the Spartans to leave Pasadena with smiles on their faces.

5. Going out on top
After beating the Buckeyes for the Big Ten championship, MSU had been ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense for 13 consecutive weeks.

The Spartans give up an average of 248.2 yards per game, giving them a slight nod ahead of the No. 2 defense, Louisville, at 251.5 yards per game.

Can MSU hold on to its top ranking? Somebody much smarter than me would have to figure out exactly how many yards MSU can surrender for that to be true.

If the Spartans get torched, that probably means they lose the game and the No. 1 spot. One of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s favorite lines is “stats are for losers,” but there’s no denying that finishing the year as the top-ranked defense would be a feather in MSU’s cap, especially with a Rose Bowl victory.

This has been a benchmark year for the Spartan defense, which began its ascent as an elite unit in 2010. The finale, pitted against one of the best offenses it’s seen thus far, should be exciting to watch.

Calhoun has sights set on future success at MSU, not in NFL

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/30/13 9:41pm         

MSU’s vaunted defense has NFL talent at every level, which has played no small part in establishing it as the No. 1-ranked unit in the nation for most of the season.

One player who isn’t concerning himself with playing for paychecks yet, however, is sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound breakout star of the Spartan defense this season is a third-year player after redshirting as a freshman, thus making him eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.

Calhoun told reporters in Calfornia last week that he’ll be back in East Lansing for at least one more season, mainly because of his desire to graduate from MSU.

“I love this university,” Calhoun said. “I love playing with these guys. I love (defensive coordinator Pat) Narduzzi. I love (head coach Mark) Dantonio.

“I would never regret my decision to come here and get my degree. People can never take a degree away from you. They can take football away from you, you’re not going to be in it for long, you can get injured, anything, but I feel like they can never take your degree. So coming back to get that, I would never regret that, ever.”

Sliding into a starting role vacated by Will Gholston, who turned pro after his junior season, Calhoun kicked off a highly productive season with three defensive touchdowns in the first two games. He has 36 tackles on the year, including a team-leading 14 for loss and 7.5 sacks, to go along with four fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception.

Calhoun’s standout season put him on the radar of NFL scouts and draft analysts, validating his potential future as a professional. He was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year to go along with first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American honors.

His presence in green and white next season will be critical as the Spartan defense looks to maintain its production despite losing seniors and longtime contributors Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds.

“We have a (saying about the NFL,) ‘Not for long league,’” Calhoun said. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be there. An injury, they cut you from the team. I want to get my degree so I can be established and go forth after that.”

Top Pa. safety to join Spartans

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/20/13 8:48pm         

For the third consecutive year, MSU has plucked one of Pennsylvania’s top football recruits to join the green and white.

The Spartan program received its 18th commitment for the class of 2014 on Thursday when four-star safety Montae Nicholson pledged to play at MSU at a ceremony at his school, Gateway High, in Monroeville, Pa. Nicholson also will reportedly get a chance to play wide receiver.

Rivals.com ranks the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Nicholson as the No. 1 player in Pennsylvania and No. 13 safety prospect in the country.

MSU’s 2012 recruiting class was highlighted by the commitment of four-star safety Demetrious Cox of Jeannette, Pa., while quarterback Damion Terry was a prized recruit from Erie, Pa,. in the class of 2013.

Nicholson chose the Spartans over offers from Florida State, Oregon, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech among others. His lead recruiter was MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten.

To check out highlights from Nicholson’s junior year, click here.

Report: Rapper Rich Homie Quan set to join MSU in Pasadena

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/19/13 3:30pm         

The rich homie is set to meet the Spartans in California some type of way, according to a report from MLive.com.
The report says Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan, the artist behind the Spartans’ unofficial 2013 theme song “Type of Way,” has plans to join the team in Los Angeles and potentially through the program’s Rose Bowl trip.

Quan reportedly watched MSU in the Big Ten Championship Game when head coach Mark Dantonio dropped his name and endorsed the song during a post-game TV interview.

Throughout the season, videos have surfaced on social media and Big Ten Network’s “The Journey” program of MSU players and coaches dancing to “Type of Way” in the locker room after victories.

“I want to be out there in a green jersey and feel a part of Michigan State,” the rapper told MLive. “I want to be at the game, I want to be out there with them. I feel a part of Michigan State now, and you don’t even know what it means to me.”

Quan said he’s hoping to secure a No. 31 jersey of fellow Georgian Darqueze Dennard, one of the catalysts of making his smash hit MSU’s anthem. He also named sophomore quarterback Connor Cook as one of his favorite players in the interview.

“They go out there with swagger, to bust people in the mouth,” Quan said of the Spartans.

“I know win or lose, people are gonna feel some type of way after playing them.”

Spartans get perks through Rose Bowl gifts

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/16/13 6:22pm         

As if a Big Ten championship, a trip to sunny Pasadena, Calif. and the opportunity to play in the 100th Rose Bowl game wasn’t enough, the 2013 Spartans will be bringing home some new gear courtesy of “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

This year’s Rose Bowl gifts include a Fossil watch, New Era 39Thirty hat, Ogio backpack and a gift suite where MSU and Stanford players can choose from a variety of electronics, jewelry, furniture and other items.

Per NCAA rules, bowls are allowed to dole out up to $550 worth of gifts for 125 members, although most programs typically purchase more for program staffers, according to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.

Typically, postseason gift packages include items such as personalized watches, rings and clothing that feature the bowl’s logo. Other common gifts are electronics not limited to TVs, game consoles and headphones or gift cards and paid shopping sprees to certain retailers.

Looking at some of the marquee gift packages across the country, Wisconsin and South Carolina, squaring off in the Capital One Bowl, will receive a $450 Best Buy gift card and shopping spree, Timely Watch Co. watch and a Russell Athletic workout shirt.

The Military Bowl is giving Maryland and Marshall players a Playstation 4 game system, a winter hat and Ogio backpack. Oregon and Texas will play in the Valero Alamo Bowl and receive an iPad mini, Apple gift card, Fossil watch, panoramic photo and a Schutt mini helmet. The Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl is hooking the East Carolina and Ohio teams up with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, Oakley Breadbox glasses, an Oakley Status backpack and a Schutt mini helmet.

For Auburn and Florida State, playing for it all in the BCS National Championship, they will receive a Fossil watch, New Era 59Fifty hat, Oakley Flak Pack XL backpack and a gift suite.

To check out a full list of 2013-14 bowl gifts, click here.

Dennard becomes MSU's first Thorpe Award winner

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/13/13 10:00pm         

Darqueze Dennard is MSU’s first recipient of the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back each season.

The announcement that the senior cornerback beat out fellow finalists Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert for the award came Thursday on ESPN’s college football awards broadcast.

Winning the Thorpe Award is the crown jewel on a long list of accolades for Dennard, which includes being named the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, first-team All-Big Ten for the second consecutive season and winning the Jack Tatum Award (another honor for the nation’s best defensive back). The former two-star recruit from Dry Branch, Ga., was selected as a first-team All-American by USA Today, Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.

As one of the most vital cogs in MSU’s No. 1-ranked defense, Dennard racked up 59 tackles, two forced fumbles, 10 pass breakups and a career-high four interceptions.

“The defense, we had a great year this year,” Dennard said at the awards show, with head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi on hand.

“I couldn’t have won this award without my teammates and the coaching staff, and I think we all just did a great job.”

Young guns

First-year starters Jack Conklin, Shilique Calhoun and Trae Waynes have received recognition as well since MSU won the Big Ten championship.

Conklin, a redshirt freshman tackle, was named to the Sporting News’ Freshman All-American team. Waynes, the cornerback opposite Dennard,was named to Scout.com’s College Football News All-Sophomore second-team while Calhoun, MSU’s dynamic defensive end, made the first team. Calhoun also was honored as a Walter Camp second-team All-American.

Five keys to an MSU victory in the Big Ten Championship Game

By Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/07/13 6:05pm         

INDIANAPOLIS— No. 2 Ohio State is far and away the best team No. 10 MSU will see this season. A potent offense orchestrated by quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde and a speedy bunch of wide receivers.

The Spartans’ No. 1-ranked defense has answered every challenge thrown its way this season, but the Buckeyes are on a higher plane than any team MSU has played.

Conversely, the Spartans are the toughest opponent Ohio State has seen so far (as well as the first ranked foe).

The Rose Bowl is on the line for MSU, while the Buckeyes hope to play for the national title with a win in an intriguing strength versus strength matchup.

Here are five keys for the Spartans to complete the upset tonight in Indianapolis:

1. Contain Miller and Hyde
Miller makes everything go for this high-powered Ohio State offense as one of the nation’s most electrifying playmakers both running and throwing the ball. Hyde is a powerful downhill runner that rarely is stopped for negative yardage. MSU has been tough to run against all year, and if it wants to claim the outright Big Ten title, it will boil down to stopping the best backfield tandem it’s faced. If Miller and Hyde find consistent running lanes, it’ll be a long day for MSU.

2. “Bend but don’t break”
Considering the explosive potential of the Buckeyes’ offense, MSU needs to hold them to field goals when they make it to the red zone to keep it close. If Ohio State is going to reach the end zone, it has to be on big plays. MSU has no shot if Ohio State can methodically drive the ball down the field for touchdowns against its defense, and the Spartans aren’t equipped to win a shootout against this team.

3. Save the best for second-to-last
Put simply, MSU needs to have its best offensive game of the year in terms of both strategy and execution. That’s not to say it has to break out the double-reverse passes from the back of the playbook, but it’s likely we’ll see some new wrinkles to keep Ohio State guessing. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook and the offense have protected the ball well all season, and that trend can’t has to continue in Indianapolis for MSU to be successful. Ohio State’s offense can pile up points in a hurry, and any extra possessions will dig a deeper hole for the inconsistent Spartan offense to climb out of. Establishing the running game early with junior Jeremy Langford will make everything easier offensively if MSU can soften up Ohio State’s defense and start executing play-action passes. Why not go with an all-hands-on-deck approach to the run game and batter the Buckeyes with Langford, bruiser freshman Delton Williams and slip a few carries to Cook to make things interesting?

4. Do something special
The Spartans need a big play on special teams to seize the momentum in this game. MSU’s kick and punt returning has been below average all season, so a big return for a score or one that sets up a touchdown would be huge. As always, you have to be on the lookout for some kind of trick play from MSU’s special teams. Whether it’s a surprise onside kick, or dare I say, a punt block, I think MSU has to make a statement on special teams to get an edge in this one.

5. Put emotions to use
With the bitter feeling of the 2011 loss in this game still fresh in the mind of many Spartans, there’s no doubt they’ll be fired up for the opportunity in front of them. With the stakes this high, the Spartans have to use that fire and emotion appropriately and not let it consume them. MSU can’t allow mental errors on behalf of being too fired up, because Ohio State will capitalize on the mistakes and it could be over early in that case. The Spartans need to show the maturity they’ve displayed all season and stay the course mentally through the highs and lows to keep this game competitive.

Saban: 'I've got a little sex appeal' for both teams in Big Ten Championship Game

By Dillon Davis          Last updated: 12/07/13 6:02pm         

INDIANAPOLIS — Former MSU and current Alabama head coach Nick Saban was talking about the Big Ten Championship Game on ESPN’s College GameDay this morning. And although he wouldn’t tip his hand as to a prediction for the game, Saban made it clear he believes MSU’s defense is elite.

Having spent time at both MSU and Ohio State, Saban said he has “a little sex appeal” for both of the teams taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this evening (8:17 p.m., FOX).

However, he praised MSU’s “toughness” on the defensive side of the ball.

“One thing I think Mark (Dantonio) does is a great job of promoting toughness on his team, and I think that’s reflected in the great defense they played all season long,” Saban said, according to a story by the Detroit Free Press reporter Joe Rexrode. “I think they have a great opportunity, if they can focus on being who they are … (to) be successful in this game.”

Saban’s Crimson Tide team previously was No. 1-ranked team in the country before being upset by Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl.

Elsewhere on the College GameDay set, World Series of Poker winner and MSU alumnus Ryan Riess was the celebrity guest picker, taking MSU. Meanwhile, ESPN analysts Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit picked the Buckeyes to come away with the victory.

Run for the roses: Big Ten Championship Game predictions

By Dillon Davis, Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/07/13 4:47pm         

INDIANAPOLIS— Run for the roses.

At least for one team, that’s the goal in tonight’s Big Ten Championship Game (8:17 p.m, FOX)

Looking to break a Rose Bowl drought older than any of its players, the No. 10 Spartans (11-1 overall, 8-0 Big Ten) take on No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) for a chance to get somewhere the program hasn’t been since the 1987-88 season.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook leads the Spartans under center. The first-year starting quarterback finished the 2013 regular season with 2,119 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Cook also has the benefit of having junior running back Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,210 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, in the backfield.

On the other side, the Buckeyes feature two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller at quarterback. Miller passed for 1,759 yards and 21 touchdowns and five interceptions along with rushing for 891 yards from scrimmage.

Thirteen games in, State News football reporters Dillon Davis and Stephen Brooks make their predictions for what should be an exciting night of football in Indianapolis.

Since head coach Mark Dantonio arrived at Michigan State in 2007, he’s talked about making a trip to the Rose Bowl. Now, for the first time in more than two decades, the Spartans are on the doorstep of what Dantonio’s always tried to do. The No. 10 Spartans (11-1 overall, 8-0 Big Ten) take on No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with the vision of a postseason dream close to being realized. I’ve spent a few days trying to come up with a prediction, weighing each variable as carefully as time would allow. Which version of quarterback Braxton Miller will the Spartans see? How will the defense respond to Miller? What about sophomore quarterback Connor Cook? Is he ready for the big stage? We’ll find out soon enough. A little more than a week ago, I don’t think I’d pick the Spartans to beat a team that certainly deserves a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. However, after seeing what Michigan was able to do against the Buckeyes last week, it’s not hard to see the Spartans holding Miller along with OSU running back Carlos Hyde in check. I predict MSU will be smelling the roses in a winning affair.

Prediction: MSU 31, Ohio State 28

I can’t remember a more difficult game to pick than tonight’s Big Ten title matchup between No. 10 MSU and No. 2 Ohio State. Prior to last weekend, when the Buckeyes narrowly escaped a shootout with an underwhelming Michigan team, I was confident Ohio State would win by double digits. That performance made me realize the gap between these two teams may not be as large as I once imagined. This should be relatively simple: If the Ohio State backfield combo of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde run wild, MSU will lose. If the Spartans can back up their No. 1 total defense and stall the best offense they’ve seen thus far, they’ll be in great shape to win if their own offense doesn’t beat itself. MSU plays well in big games, and this arguably is the biggest since the last Rose Bowl trip in 1988. Ohio State knows it’s playing for something bigger than this game. For MSU, this game is everything, and that, coupled with the painful memories of the 2011 loss here, gives the Spartans a significant mental edge that you can’t quantify. The Spartans have been doubted all season, and answered the call every time. They constantly feel overlooked, and most of the time they are, which will fuel an emotional upset win here at Lucas Oil Stadium. MSU will ride a ridiculous wave of motivation and come out firing to upset Ohio State and return to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

Prediction: MSU 34, Ohio State 31

State News reporters revisit preseason predictions

By Dillon Davis, Stephen Brooks          Last updated: 12/07/13 1:34pm         

State News football reporters Stephen Brooks and Dillon Davis take a look back at their MSU game predictions from the 2013 preseason. The No. 10-ranked Spartans overachieved compared to Stephen’s predicted finish of 10-2 and Dillon’s choice of 9-3. Considering the picks were made before the season, perspectives obviously were quite different.

Overall, both writers overestimated MSU’s offensive production, and underestimated the Spartans on the road. Compare the reality of an 11-1 season with the early projections.

Result: MSU 26, WMU 13

Stephen: MSU 45, WMU 3
This was the beginning of a common theme throughout my predictions by assuming MSU’s offense was magically fixed through the offseason. The Spartan defense made an early statement with two touchdowns, but it was an uncomfortably close game against a team that finished 1-11 — with its starting quarterback knocked out in the first half. Reality set in that MSU still had some kinks to work out offensively, which became a trend in non-conference play.

Dillon: MSU 35, WMU 7
At the time, I wrote that there were few teams MSU would rather open the season against than Western Michigan. And based on the flow of this game, the Spartans were awful lucky to start the season this way. Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell started the game for the Spartans, but yielded the position to sophomore Connor Cook after a few lackluster drives — a move that ultimately proved to head coach Mark Dantonio what Cook brings to the table under center. The game was highlighted by two spectacular defensive touchdowns by Kurtis Drummond and Shilique Calhoun, respectively, setting the tone for what has been an outstanding season on the defensive side of the ball.

Result: MSU 21, South Florida 6

Stephen: MSU 31, South Florida 10
The offense plodded along again as MSU needed two more defensive touchdowns from sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun to beat the Bulls, one week after they lost to FCS McNeese State. The muddled quarterback controversy wore on as Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook and Tyler O’Connor rotated under center to produce a single touchdown. South Florida was worse and MSU played worse than I expected.

Dillon: MSU 24, South Florida 14
Three quarterbacks played, while not a single one emerged as the clear cut choice to be the starter. However, Calhoun proved he’s even better than advertised, scoring twice on a fumble return and an interception return, pacing the way in another weak offensive showing. I thought MSU might overlook South Florida but, as it turned out at this point of the year, MSU didn’t know enough about itself to overthink an opponent. So, as the Spartans have done for much of 2013, the defense shouldered the load en route to a victory.

Result: MSU 55, Youngstown State 17

Stephen: MSU 49, Youngstown State 0
The Penguins scored more points than I anticipated, but it’s notable for being Cook’s breakout game that put him in position to seize the starting quarterback job the remainder of the season. He threw for four touchdown passes and MSU matched its highest point total under head coach Mark Dantonio. The low-profile matchup with Youngstown State wound up being the first of many positive strides for the offense.

Dillon: MSU 42, Youngstown State 7
As I predicted, the Spartans pummeled Youngstown State like a schoolyard bully. But more importantly, it was the first sign of life from MSU’s offense, which had been largely stagnant during the season. It was interesting seeing Cook grow up before our eyes against the Penguins and he’s only gotten better since this game. And while the Penguins are not in the Spartans’ weight class, per se, it was a much-needed thrashing to give the team a boost it badly needed.

Result: Notre Dame 17, MSU 13

Stephen: Notre Dame 17, MSU 13
I was amazed to look back and realize I pegged this one perfectly. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before. But there’s no way I could have predicted how this one would go down in South Bend, Ind. The Fighting Irish used four pass interference penalties and a defensive holding call as its main function of offense, and squeaked out a win at home. Looking back, it was a missed opportunity as MSU’s only loss.

Dillon: MSU 17, Notre Dame 14
First off, a tip of the cap to Stephen for getting the score correct for this game. I’d imagine the odds of doing that have to be pretty slim. As for the game, it’s difficult to look back and see where the Spartans were compared to where they are right now — it seems like a different team. A week after thrashing Youngstown State, MSU was back to basics on offense, struggling to make the explosive plays it takes to beat a team like Notre Dame. Ultimately, it took four defensive pass interference calls — several of which were very questionable — for the Fighting Irish to give the Spartans their only loss of the season.

Result: MSU 26, Iowa 14

Stephen: MSU 28, Iowa 13
This was Cook’s second great leap forward, and the passing game showed a legitimate pulse for the first time all season. I wasn’t perfect in consecutive weeks, but I wasn’t far off. Cook and the Spartans responded from the Notre Dame loss with a big road win to kick off the conference schedule with confidence.

Dillon: Iowa 24, MSU 17
I predicted MSU would struggle at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. After all, it’s a difficult venue to play in and it was Hawkeyes’ homecoming weekend on campus, which usually brings the largest and most enthusiastic crowd of the season. However, Cook and the passing game emerged in Iowa City, taking a step forward after a difficult loss in South Bend, Ind. Each time the Hawkeyes built any momentum, MSU was quick to grab it back and walked out of the stadium with a big time victory.

Result: MSU 42, Indiana 28

Stephen: MSU 38, Indiana 31
I gave MSU’s defense a ton of credit and respect before the season, but I slipped up assuming Indiana’s high-octane offense would find a few more creases. The Hoosiers’ Tevin Coleman broke a 64-yard run to begin the game, but the Spartans made their tweaks and locked it down the rest of the day. That’s another trend that seemed to start with this game: MSU’s outstanding defense appears to be most vulnerable on the first drive or two, but given time, the Spartans will make the necessary adjustments.

Dillon: MSU 28, Indiana 17
For the first time all season, MSU’s defense struggled to open the game, signaling a cause for concern against an up tempo Hoosier offensive attack. But MSU’s offense, led by a four-touchdown day by junior running back Jeremy Langford, proved it can be every bit as lethal as any team in the Big Ten. Langford is the first MSU player to score four in a game since Edwin Baker in 2010 against Minnesota, leading the Spartans to a win and a 5-1 record.

Result: MSU 14, Purdue 0

Stephen: MSU 35, Purdue 6
The blunder against the Boilermakers remains the biggest head-scratching moment of the 2013 season. It’s hard to understand how a team that’s competing for a BCS bid looked as bad as it did against the lowly Boilermakers. MSU didn’t even score an offensive touchdown to make it a two-possession game until the fourth quarter. The Spartans’ body of work, though, proved it to be an aberration, albeit a confusing one.

Dillon: MSU 31, Purdue 10
Looking back, this game was incredibly odd. The MSU offense that took a tremendous step forward against Indiana the previous week and seemingly disappeared against the Boilermakers. And considering Purdue was one of the Big Ten’s weaker teams of 2013, it led many to question how good the Spartans actually could be. Heading into the fourth quarter ahead by only seven, it was never out of the question for Purdue to claw their way back in — it only takes one play. But senior linebacker Denicos Allen scored on a 45-yard touchdown return to ensure a win in an otherwise strange day at the office.

Result: MSU 42, Illinois 3

Stephen: MSU 34, Illinois 0
Once again, an explosive offense found success with an early scoring drive. And once again, that offense was stifled the rest of the way by the Spartans. It was another transformational game for Cook, who finished 15-for-16 passing, setting a school record for passing efficiency.

Dillon: MSU 35, Illinois 3
Few knew what to make of Connor Cook — or MSU’s offense in general — to this point of the year. But as Stephen points out, Cook finished the day 15-for-16 passing for 208 yards and three touchdowns, showing there indeed was a light at the end of the tunnel for the Spartans.

Result: MSU 29, Michigan 6

Stephen: MSU 24, Michigan 17
Before the season, the Wolverines appeared a lot tougher than they truly were by this point in the season. MSU took advantage of the youthful interior offensive line of U-M with a series of blitzes, sacking quarterback Devin Gardner seven times. The Spartans physically overwhelmed U-M to regain the Paul Bunyan Trophy and remain undefeated in conference play.

Dillon: Michigan 24, MSU 21
Hear me out. I was expecting so much more of the Wolverines this season. Blame the media, blame the hype, blame whatever. A year after clipping the Spartans in Ann Arbor and finally with a competent quarterback under center, it seemed like U-M was primed to beat MSU once more. I was wrong. MSU’s defense dominated quarterback Devin Gardner, bringing the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to East Lansing and continuing the tailspin that was the Wolverines’ season.

Result: MSU 41, Nebraska 28

Stephen: Nebraska 34, MSU 24
Again, the preseason expectations didn’t match the product that Nebraska brought to the field. The Cornhuskers were a good team, but not a great one, especially without quarterback Taylor Martinez. I thought playing on the road swung the game in favor of Nebraska, but it proved to be another statement win for the Spartans.

Dillon: Nebraska 35, MSU 31
As was the case against Iowa, I didn’t anticipate MSU having the success on the road like it had this season. And considering the Spartans had never beaten Nebraska, it seemed unlikely it would happen this year. Without Taylor Martinez, the Huskers were much weaker than anyone could have known, opening the door for a five turnover day for MSU’s defense. Also, it was another strong day for Langford, who finished the day with 151 yards and two touchdowns.

Result: MSU 30, Northwestern 6

Stephen: MSU 27, Northwestern 24
The Wildcats were praised as a sleeper team entering the season in the top 25, but injuries and a string of close losses sent their season spiraling downward. MSU went to Evanston, Ill., and put on another defensive clinic to earn the Legends Division title. At this point in the season, an MSU victory was easy to predict.

Dillon: MSU 34, Northwestern 24
What the hell happened to Northwestern’s season? This team was supposed to run the table on its schedule and be a dark horse to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Instead, the Wildcats finished the year with a single Big Ten victory, nearly mirroring the unlucky ineptitude of the Spartans from 2012. The win allowed MSU to clinch the Legends Division title with one week of the regular season left to play.

Result: MSU 14, Minnesota 3

Stephen: MSU 35, Minnesota 7
Similar to the Purdue game, the Spartans shuffled through a senior day bout with Minnesota that was much closer than expected. The Golden Gophers also were much, much better than expected as the Big Ten’s surprise story this season. I’ll give them a pass, though, considering the date with Ohio State for the conference title was already booked.

Dillon: MSU 42, Minnesota 14
The Big Ten is weird sometimes. Northwestern, who was predicted to be one of the conference’s best teams, turned out to be probably its worst. And Minnesota, who’s a perennial doormat for most Big Ten teams, finished as strong as the Golden Gophers have in years. This game was a little too close for comfort but the Spartans muddled through senior day before booking a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.